African Americans Fly High With Math And Science

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 12:48 pm

This Black History Month, Tell Me More is taking a look at African Americans in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) who are inspiring future generations.

Today, Barrington Irving shares how his sky high dreams became a reality. A chance encounter in his parents' bookstore put him on a path that would make him the youngest person and first African American to fly solo around the world.

Barrington Irving remembers a man walking into the store dressed in a pilot's uniform. The man asked whether Irving might consider a future in aviation. "I immediately just said to him, I don't think I'm smart enough to do it," Irving remembers/ "Then I asked him how much money he made and after he answered that question, I took an interest in aviation."

Irving's success was far from a sure thing. His family immigrated to the United States from Jamaica when Irving was six. Private flight private lessons were out of the question - so Barrington Irving did what he thought was the next best thing.

He saved his money to buy a flight simulator game that allowed him to fly anywhere and in any kind of weather conditions from the safety of his PC. It was a start, and made him passionate enough to save more of his money so that he could afford flight lessons.

By the time he turned 21, Irving had lost friends to violence and prison, so he was already thinking about his own legacy. "I'll never forget asking myself the question, 'what's one thing I can do whether I live or die that would be worth something?'" he tells NPR's Michel Martin. Irving says an idea hit him - fly around the world.

It was one of those ideas, Irving recalls, that was great in principle, but a struggle in reality. Barrington Irving hit roadblock after roadblock for nearly two and a half years. Funding was difficult to come by. Yet that didn't stop Irving from pursuing his dream.

So at the age of 23, Barrington Irving finally had his plane ready for his flight around the world. But he had no radar, no de-icing system and thirty dollars in his pocket when he left Miami.

Some 97 days later, when Irving returned he was greeted by thousands of people with congratulatory banners and signs, and what really stuck out was the number of young people who had followed his journey.

Building on that inspiration has turned into Barrington Irving's mission in life. He started by challenging kids from some of Miami's failing high schools to build a plane from scratch, which he would then pilot. In late 2014, Irving will also be taking to the skies again with a flying classroom.

He says that children from across the nation and around the world will be able to interact with him as he conducts experiments that they choose and help monitor. He's hoping he will be able to get more students excited about the STEM fields.

"We want to be the best, but we're afraid to challenge our kids to the be the best." That's something that Irving is hoping to change one flight at a time.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, millions of Americans sat down to watch the Super Bowl last night and you can admit it. We know you wanted to see the ads. We'll be checking in with TV critic Eric Deggans about the ads that hit or missed or pushed some people's buttons, not in a good way. That's coming up.

But first, today we begin a series to observe Black History Month, and this year we decided to speak with African-Americans on the cutting edge. For our series this month we are going to speak with innovators who have excelled in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called stem fields, and we begin today with pilot and educator Barrington Irving. He set a world record in 2007 at the age of 23. He was both the youngest person and the first black man to fly around the world alone.

Here he is talking about that trip at a 2011 TED conference in Miami.

BARRINGTON IRVING: My airplane, due to a downdraft, descended from 20,000 feet to 9,200 feet. Now, two things happened in that moment. The first thing that happened was, of course, I did the right thing. I added full power, was able to climb out. The second thing that happened in that moment was that I needed an extra set of underwear.

MARTIN: Now, at the ripe old age of 29, he has recently been recognized by National Geographic as an emerging explorer. His latest mission is building a flying classroom to give kids the experience of seeing mathematics in action. And Barrington Irving joins us now from Miami member station WLRN.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

IRVING: Oh man, I'm just so excited to be on this with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Let's just start with the idea and then you can talk about the inspiration to do what you did.

IRVING: Well, my parents...

MARTIN: You didn't have a private plane in the driveway?

IRVING: Oh, no. We weren't blessed with a private plane in the driveway. We certainly came from humble beginnings. Family moved here from Jamaica at the age of six. My introduction to aviation was actually random. My parents had a small Bible book store and one day during off season while I was playing football, this gentleman walks into the store dressed in this pilot's uniform and says to me, hey, son, have you ever thought about becoming a pilot?

And I immediately just said to him, I don't think I'm smart enough to do it. And he then said to me, oh, you know, if I can do it, you can do it. Then I asked him how much money he made and after he answered that question, I took an interest in aviation and interest turned into passion and here I am today.

MARTIN: That's all you needed to hear, huh?


MARTIN: Well, you know, flying can be quite expensive. No disrespect to the military, but that's one reason why a number of people join the military, but you didn't want to wait for that. In fact, you weren't even old enough to join the military at a time when you started trying to learn how to fly. How did you do it?

IRVING: I purchased - I saved up my lunch money and skipped out on meals. My parents didn't know this. They would kill me. But was able to buy a $40 software made by Microsoft Flight Simulator and on that software, although it was virtual - man, I was able to fly anywhere in the world and simulate certain weather conditions, and that really kept my interest for quite some time until I graduated high school and was able to work hard and afford flight lessons.

MARTIN: How did you actually figure out where to go to get flight lessons?

IRVING: Actually, you'll be amazed at a number of resources out there, as it relates to how to get involved in flight training. For me, it's kind of funny. I'll never forget. We were just so poor and it's kind of embarrassing to say, but I'll say it, anyway. There was a company who had a free six month magazine subscription, you know, and it really talks about aviation and different career opportunities, and I couldn't afford, you know, anything beyond six months. So the first six months, my name was Barrington Irving and then the next six months it was Irving Barrington and then six months after that it was something else.

But, you know, I was just hungry. You know, I was hungry to learn and I was willing to work hard.

MARTIN: How did the idea of flying solo around the world take hold?

IRVING: When I turned 21 years of age, as a black man that really meant something to me. And I'll never forget asking myself the question, what's one thing I can do, whether I live or die, that would be worth something? And I'll never forget. The idea hit me of, you know, what if I did a flight around the world? And the idea was great, but the next two and a half years I faced rejection after rejection and my mental perspective honestly was - what do I have to lose? I had plenty of friends who didn't make it or they got locked up.

It's kind of interesting, you know, and to this day and age I wear a brown flight suit and I've seen others in brown suits, you know, that says Miami Dade County Corrections Department, so it's - for me, in wanting to fly around the world, it was just solely to inspire others.

MARTIN: The fact is it took you, you know, two and a half years. You faced more than 50 rejections for sponsorships before you were finally able to convince several manufacturers to donate individual components. You took off - if I have this right - with - I'm not laughing. It's just hard to envision, because I'm a mother too, and I'm thinking how I would feel if this was my son. No weather radar, no de-icing system, and $30 in your pocket.


MARTIN: And when you landed, what did you see?

IRVING: I come back and land and I just literally see thousands of people at the airport waving banners and signs and congratulating me, and even the ones who tried to discourage me or I knew they were expecting me to come back in a casket - fighting to shake my hand and to congratulate me.

But what stuck out to me even more was just the amount of students that we had following me online and blogging (unintelligible) which was over 300,000 kids. And you know, I'll never forget that moment.

When I departed out of Miami, I only had $30 in my pocket and I'm reading banners and signs that says, Go Barrington Go, and I'm wondering to myself, where am I going? I only have $30 in my pocket, but sure enough, sure enough, by the time I made my first stop, Miami fundraised close to $100,000 and the further I kept on going, the more money was raised.

MARTIN: Well, what are you up to now? What are you trying to do now? You've got a number of educational programs that you are involved in. Tell me a little bit about those.

IRVING: Yeah. So the past few years for me since flying around the world have certainly been interesting. I've pretty much transitioned from being a pilot to also becoming an educator, and one of the first projects I tested was our build and soar program, where we challenge 60 kids from failing high schools in Miami to build an aircraft from scratch, and not only build it from scratch but I put my life on the line to fly it for its first flight.

A number of those students have gone on to college. A number of them have gotten degrees in various fields. I mean there's one young lady, Baccari, who - at the time of that project, she couldn't point out a sixteenth of an inch on a ruler and now she is on a full scholarship as a math major at Duke University.

MARTIN: Tell me about the flying classroom.

IRVING: We're creating a real life magic school bus by transforming a $5 million private aircraft donated by the Beechcraft Corporation into the world's first flying classroom. So what does that mean?

MARTIN: Hold on. For people who aren't familiar with - who don't have kids, the magic school bus is a series of books where the school bus magically takes kids on all kinds of adventures where they understand, you know, things like the rain forest, the core of the Earth, the environment, stuff like that.

IRVING: Yeah. And...

MARTIN: And this is a real life one.

IRVING: Yeah. Now we've figured out a way to do it in real life, where we will utilize this flying aircraft and be able to not only communicate with classrooms from the air, but we're traveling all seven continents, where we'll conduct various expeditions. It could be around geothermal energy, biodiversity, innovations in technology, but we're doing it in a way where students actually control the results of every mission.

From the meals I eat to the experiments that's conducted and the data and research that's collected, it's all done by the students virtually, and I'm just fulfilling the actions that they choose.

MARTIN: And when will this start?

IRVING: This will start September of 2014 and we're just very excited to be able to collaborate with so many individuals and corporations to create Classroom in the Sky.

MARTIN: What do you think this means? What do you think is the lesson here?

IRVING: It's interesting because the problem that we face in this country as it relates to STEMs - you know, science, technology, engineering and math - is a national problem. We need as many bodies that we can find to become the next leaders in those areas. And I found working with all types of students, this nation faces an even bigger problem. Our problem is the students of today are simply unmotivated, regardless of background or economic status, and I think what we're doing in education - we want to be the best, but we're afraid to challenge our kids to be the best.

And that's where I put forth with action with some of the projects that we're doing. I don't say we're going to do something and expect our students to fail. Failure certainly isn't an option, whether it's building a plane or having kids as young as eight years old building a car faster than a Ferrari.

We have to put tangible challenges with real finish lines in front of these kids' faces because when a child has the opportunity to do those types of projects or anything hands-on or skills-based, they're not looking at - oh, I have to learn the math and science and algebra and chemistry and physics and so forth behind doing some of these things. They're looking at the finish line.

MARTIN: Barrington Irving is a pilot and educator who set a world record as the youngest person and the first black man to fly around the world alone. He spoke with us from WLRN in Miami.

Barrington Irving, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations, and we can't wait to see what you do next.

IRVING: All right. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.